Skipping Stones on the Atlantic

Rain comes slowly to Waverly. Days pass without sunlight while puddles grow and swallow the streets. Boats can’t leave the harbor, so the downtown diners fill with fishermen staring out the portside windows at the rows of moored ships. About three years ago, the Cistern Café’s roof caved in during a particularly fierce nor’easter. Jonah Heller, my neighbor now of twelve years, was almost killed by a falling beam. The debris severed his legs below the knees. Now he’s in a wheelchair, but Jonah still goes out on the ocean to set lobster traps and whale watch. He built a ramp up to the pier so he could sit by the water and smoke the big Turkish cigars he bought every Friday with his disability check from the paper mill on Shrew Street.

McManus Pulp Works at one point employed over three quarters of Waverly’s male population, but when the corporate office upstate scaled back on personnel in the eighties, the factory had to follow suit. Most guys moved to the Deerborne factory or went back to school, but Jonah’s job survived somehow. Some said he had a deal with management, ratting out underproductive staffers, but most of us who knew him were unconvinced.

Jonah’s wife Liz had been in chemo about a year when the accident happened. We knew she wasn’t doing so well — Terry and I rarely saw her outside anymore, but the garden she kept in the front yard never appeared in need of care. Terry asked me if I thought she hired someone, but I knew Liz wasn’t that kind of woman. Back when the Hellers had kids living at home, she would sit on the doorstep and watch them bury things and play with sticks for hours. She never stopped these games, I remember. Some parents seem terrified at the prospect of their children getting hurt, but Liz knew even then that people only learn through hardship. Both of the kids ended up going to college, and eventually we stopped running into them in the supermarket and the gas station around Christmastime.

When we invited the Hellers over for drinks in the summer, Terry would ask about “Derry” and “Merry”, her old babysitting nicknames for the pair, and Jonah would laugh and say that they never called anymore and Liz would laugh and say that wasn’t true. In bed after the company left, Terry would kick me with her tiny feet and ask if I ever thought about having kids. I would roll over into the pillow and pretend to be asleep. My morning shifts were earlier then, and I had to be up by 5:30 to check in at the mill.

For months after Liz was diagnosed, Terry slept in. Sometimes I would get back home at eight to find her still under the covers, awake but unmoving. “What’s wrong?” I would ask, and she’d shake her head. I don’t think she was mad at me, but something was wrong and I felt bad about it. I made her tea, and eventually she would start talking about her parents and how her three brothers had all died in a fire when she was a girl. I knew the story, but I think she liked it when I was quiet. Jonah said Terry should see a professional. Keep it confidential, he said, because people gossiped. The next morning I called a psychiatrist in Deerborne and scheduled an appointment for Wednesday. When Terry saw the date scribbled on the calendar, she came at me with a steak knife. I was sitting down at the table and she snuck up behind me. “I’m not crazy,” she said. I nodded. “I’m not,” she repeated, waving the cutlery with her weak hand, “Do you think I’m crazy?” I stood and grabbed her, prying the blade from her fist. Terry dug her nails into my knuckles and I started to bleed. Still, I managed to get the knife away. By then she had started to cry. I bandaged my hand and kissed my wife on the cheek and we went to bed. The next morning, she saw the doctor and the problem went away.

That May, all of Liz’s hair fell out. For a couple of weeks she experimented with different wigs, switching from a blonde to a redhead to a pearly white in the span of a few days. “I like her as a brunette,” Terry told me over dinner one night, “I think she would look into a darker shade.” My wife had always been sensible in matters of fashion.

Liz got paler. I saw her in the garden every now and again, weeding and planting things. Her skin was becoming transparent and her eyes recessing back into her skull from all the drugs the doctors had put her on. Jonah called me one night, worried and anxious. I could hear him sweating on the other end of the line, breath labored. It sounded like he was outside with this constant chirping of crickets and peepers in the background. “It’s getting bad, Colm,” he whispered into the phone, obviously afraid Liz would hear.

You could always hear Jonah coming towards you, his metal wheels clacking against anything they touched. A few days after he was released from the hospital, Terry and I were helping Liz make dinner in the Hellers’ kitchen. I heard a noise from the back room and asked if the air conditioning had conked out again. When Jonah rolled in, I laughed and pretended to have known all along.

Talking with him that night, I could hear the steel creaking through the receiver. I asked him where he was going, but Jonah kept saying that Liz’s therapy wasn’t helping and that he wished he had been a doctor instead of a mill man so he could help his wife. It was nearly three when my neighbor finally hung up, so I decided to stay up for another two hours before going to work. I fixed some coffee and sat at the table and watched the horizon line from out the window until the first rays of sunlight began branching over the ocean. The floorboard where Terry had dropped the knife a few months back still had a chink in it from where the blade had lodged. At this point, the mark was easier to ignore than promise to fix. I left the house and climbed into the car.

They found Jonah shivering and wrapped in a blanket down by the Deerborne mall. Later he told me that he had simply started rolling, first out the backdoor, then the driveway, Main Street, Shrew Street, and finally the freeway connecting Waverly to its proximal towns. Terry said he was lucky to have not been hit by a car. The adventure placed a sort of self-designated house arrest on Jonah. The outdoors began to frighten him, and he would insist I close the screen to their home the instant I stepped inside. Late in the summer, Jonah asked me to come over to help him remove a couple of dead leaves, probably dragged in by me during my visit earlier in the day, from the kitchen floor. And while my neighbor’s ever-increasing fear of the elements was at first endearing — acting as his sole support and confidante made me feel necessary — it soon became more of an irritation than an obligation. “You should tell him to go to the beach,” Terry suggested, and I complied. But Jonah would not be swayed.

Before long, he was asking me to pick up his groceries and wash his clothes. That Thanksgiving, when Meredith called to say she was held up in Bangkok and wouldn’t make it back in time, Jonah asked me to phone his brother and sisters-in-law to relay the news. The next week, I was vacuuming their house. It dawned on me that Jonah would never stop unless I intervened, so I tracked him down and effectively declared my resignation. I told Jonah that he should either hire outside help or somehow seek to manage on his own. I told him to stop calling my home. I told him to stop being so damn depressing. And when I left the house, having ironed and folded the linen as requested, I realized that the only thing I had forgotten to mention to Jonah was that I had been sleeping with his wife for five years.

We had snow on Thanksgiving that year. Three feet fell in the space of two days, erasing the roads. Terry, possessed with a verve I hadn’t seen in her for years, went out to build ice fortresses and make angels in the powder. I never followed her outside, but I did usually have a cup of hot chocolate waiting for her when she came back into the kitchen, dripping freezing water onto the kitchen floor while prying off her boots. Plans for Terry’s brother from Tampa to visit fell through. Weather had canceled all flights into and out of Logan for at least a week. As the snow began to clear on the 22nd, we began preparing to celebrate the holiday alone. Jonah had taken my outburst fairly well. He understood my frustration with his condition and he wanted to make amends. We went to the Cistern a couple of times for drinks — Jonah got his for free now — but the place only made us uncomfortable. Liz was doing better, but no one seemed ready to assume she was healthy again. I had difficulty finding excuses to see her, now that Jonah and I were having communication problems. I still did the couple’s shopping, and every Monday I would deposit the grocery bags on the kitchen table, check to see if Jonah was asleep, and crept up the stairs to where Liz invariably lay in bed, reading or listening to the radio.

I had been the first to hear that she was sick. We had been lying on our backs in the Hellers’ bedroom, naked and staring at a rotating fan on the ceiling. It had been a particularly hot summer. Crops all over the county died and the nearby hospital reported record incidences of dehydration in July and August. I ran my finger through Liz’s then-black hair and listened to our breaths echo in the otherwise silent room. “I went to the doctor’s today,” she started. I think I expected her to be pregnant. After she told me she started crying. I looked over to see tears running down the side of her face and onto the green sheets.

Liz doesn’t get sad anymore. Raising two children will either make you an optimist or the world’s greatest cynic, and she had come out on the brighter side. Sometimes, she would slide out of the bed when I was there and walk around the room for a few minutes before she grew weak and had to lie down again. We never talked about the illness or its implications. Instead, Liz liked to tell me about the books she was reading or magazine articles she had found interesting. Scientific American published a piece on global warming and climate change in December, saying that within twenty years the ice caps would melt, sea levels rise and coastal communities like ours would be engulfed by the ocean. Liz said that in another five billion years, the sun would envelop the earth in flames. After quoting these morbid statistics, she would usually roll onto her back, stare up at the paint-chipping ceiling and chuckle for minutes. “Do you ever fantasize about dying?” she asked me once. I told her no, I didn’t. “I do,” she said, “But not like this. Aeschylus was killed by a falling turtle. I want something like that.” At this point I usually told her that she wasn’t going to die and went downstairs to check on Jonah and make tea.

The rainstorm looked like the others before it, heavy and dark, hanging midair to the east. Terry and I were taking a walk on the beach and looking out to the water when we saw the black clouds moving in. “This one won’t be fun,” she laughed, and kicked some sand into the air with her bare toes. I agreed it looked menacing, but said we should wait for the winds to pick up before going back to the car.

Vernassa Beach lies about two miles from our home. Terry and I have a yearlong pass because we visit so much. I think this is what drew me to her back in high school. Whenever I was down by the water looking for fiddler crabs and egg cases I would see her tossing stones into the waves. Sometimes she was alone and other times with friends, but she was always on the beach hurling rocks at the sea. The lifeguards had been trying to discourage her since an old woman was hit in the head by a sizeable pebble and killed in the summer, but because one of the lifeguards was Terry’s older brother, Jacob, the girl was afforded a certain liberty in her shore-side escapades. The killer, if I recall, was never apprehended or identified.

A strong breeze from the water began to toss sand around our knees. A couple grains flew into Terry’s eye, and she buckled over, cursing and fumbling at her face with a fist. “We should go in,” she said, and without waiting for my response, turned around and walked towards the gate of the parking lot. I picked up a round stone from the beach and tried to skip it on the water, but the mounting waves devoured the rock in midair. I turned from the ocean and ran to catch up with Terry some hundred yards away. By the time we arrived at the station wagon, a light drizzle had started, dripping against the concrete and the tops of our heads. Terry shook her hair out and climbed into the passenger seat. I stood outside the car for a few more moments, looking out at the rising clouds before my wife banged on the driver’s side window and I nodded and opened the door.

“Do we have groceries?” Terry asked as we drove through downtown. We didn’t, but I was in no mood to stop for them. The shower had amplified into a downpour since leaving Vernassa. Streams of the stuff ran down the windshield, all the while with that light peeling sound of rubber and water circling beneath the wheels. A few people in red and yellow slickers crossed the street, their shapes obscured by the rain. It occurred to me that I had promised Jonah a couple of bottles of seltzer a few days ago, and I hadn’t visited Liz in over a week. A drenched cat walked in front of the car, and I slammed on the brakes. “Jesus Christ, Colm!” Terry said as the decrepit animal skulked onto the sidewalk, seeming not to have noticed. Lights from the supermarket shone wetly a few blocks down. I gave Terry a look that said “I know” and pulled into the plaza. We were the only ones there. “Get tomatoes,” said Terry, and I got out of the car and shut the door.

I put the seltzer in Jonah’s refrigerator and walked up the stairs to Liz’s room. The patter of the rain on the roof echoed throughout the house. Jonah, asleep now in the den, had left a window open. Water was everywhere. I must have stepped in a puddle on my way over, because every step I made left a wet silhouette on the floor. Liz was standing by the window. Without turning she said, “This will last for days.” I walked up behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist. When I pressed my fingers to her stomach I could feel the outline of her ribcage,. “Where’s Jonah?” she asked, and I told her he was asleep. “He never seems to wake up anymore,” she replied, crashing casually back into bed. I climbed in beside her. “I want to go for a hike,” she said finally, “In the rain.” This didn’t strike me as a particularly good idea, but I went and got her coat and boots from the closet anyway. I helped her with the buckles of the jacket and supported her weight as we descended the stairs. Her movements were staggered and uncertain as if she had forgotten how her feet worked. “I haven’t been down here in forever,” she whispered to me so as not to wake Jonah, “I forget where the doors are.” Taking her hand and letting her lean against my side, I led her to the back of the house and helped her out onto the sidewalk. Little streams had formed in the streets, carrying leftover leaves downhill and into the gutters. The lawns of the neighborhood glistened and bubbled with mud. “It seems warm for December,” Liz said. I worried somewhat that Terry would see me walking with Liz outside the home. I had told her I was heading to Deerborne to pick up a screwdriver, but I trusted myself to make an excuse if I needed one.

Terry had once caught Liz and me together in our bedroom when the Hellers were over for a cookout. I had swooped Liz upstairs during the chaos of clearing dishes and was unbuttoning her shirt when my wife opened the door. “Could you feel this, T?” Liz had asked without missing a beat, “I think I feel something strange.” I had always admired Liz for her sharpness, and it was only several months later that she told me she was sick. Had she known all the way back then?

We reached the end of the block before I noticed Liz was shivering. “I want to go inside,” she said. I took off my coat and made her put it on. Jonah met us in the kitchen, his hair mussed and his shirt collar unbuttoned. I told him to make sure she dried off. When I got home, clothes heavy with rain, Terry got a towel and ran me a bath, although it was the last thing I wanted.

Three days later, the rain still hadn’t stopped. I hadn’t left the house since taking Liz for the walk, but I had heard rumors that the downtown had flooded and the Cistern had been washed away. Jonah read in the daily paper that Deerborne was completely underwater. Also, he told me Liz had been coughing nonstop. He was worried, but doubted the doctor’s office still existed. “She’s tough,” he said before hanging up, “Old girl’s been through worse.” I called several times that night, but every time, Jonah answered and I had to hang up. ”I’m worried about Liz,” Terry said at dinner that night, “Jonah doesn’t do anything for her. You should help out a bit more.” By Wednesday we were running out of food. Terry suggested driving as far as we could to find a supermarket, but I advised against it. The rain was bound to stop sooner or later and then we could pick up groceries without fear of drowning. Reluctantly, Terry agreed and went to look out the window. “The garbage cans are gone,” she reported, “And I can see the ocean.”

On Friday, we moved everything up to the second storey. Rain was seeping under the door, almost touching our nice rugs. We carried the dining room table up the stairs and wedged the sofa into the corner of our bedroom. “We should build a boat,” said my wife, chuckling. “Just in case.” I told her I was going out to check on the Hellers.

The water outside was ankle deep and rising when I stepped into the street. The rain continued to pour and Liz’s garden had been reduced to a brown puddle of torn flowers and weeds. The shingles on the sides had started to come loose. Their mailbox was nowhere to be seen. Pushing open their door, I saw the water level inside the house had risen to calf-depth. The fridge floated in a circle around the kitchen, coffee mugs and other pieces of unwashed silverware rotating in its wake. A framed picture of Meredith and Derek, standing atop a mountain in what looked like Maine, swirled past my leg and bumped into the pantry. Sloshing into the living room, I saw Jonah asleep, mouth agape, sitting in his wheelchair. The elevating water rocked against his wheels and lapped at his trouser legs. His light snoring was nearly inaudible above the churn of the waves. I moved slowly to the staircase and climbed out of the water.

Liz’s door was open and I walked inside. Sprawled in a nightgown across her covers, she raised her head and uttered a guttural cough as I knelt beside her. “I’m not feeling so hot today, Colm,” she said, “I think I’m coming down with something.” I moved her pillow to the end of the bed and looked inside her mouth, but her throat looked fine. “Can I have some tea?” she asked, and I nodded and went into the hall to look for water. The bathroom at the end of the corridor had a small cup with toothbrushes in it which I emptied and filled it from the “hot” tap. I returned to Liz’s room with the drink in hand and told her it might be a bit cool. “Thanks,” she said, reaching out and downing the contents of the mug without the slightest trace of disappointment. “We should get married,” she said at last, “Divorce Terry and I’ll leave Jonah.” She motioned her hand towards the window, “When this clears up.” I nodded and pulled myself onto the bed. Liz sighed and leaned back, closing her eyes. Reaching for the pillow I had moved earlier, I watched her mouth open and close with each passing breath, smiling.

Terry would be waiting. We would begin work on the boat when I got home. I had once read a book on nautical construction and the loose details of the craft remained clear in my mind. We could fish for food. The water would subside eventually and I would go back to work at the mill. Everything would be gone, but we would manage. I looked one last time at Liz and pressed the pillow over her mouth and eyes, listening to the flood lap against the walls of her home, feeling the tiny bones of her face break beneath my weight.

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